The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Driving the Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination—it’s about taking in the scenery

Highway 87 in South Dakota might not be that long, but it’s 14 miles of really awesome road that twists and turns its way through some of South Dakota’s most stunning natural scenery. This curvaceous stretch of narrow pavement, known as Needles Highway, travels through unique rock formations in the southeastern portion of Black Hills National Forest.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We traveled southbound from Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota south into South Dakota for about four hours. Eventually, the oil derricks and rigs dotting the North Dakotan landscape gave way to vast and open tracks of South Dakota.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a desolate place with a hauntingly beautiful feel. It consists of mostly flat and wild grassland. Colorful buttes and mesas pop up here and there. But then the Black Hills start.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing quite like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Around Black Hills National Forest, one finds numerous well-known sites including Mount Rushmore, the work-in-progress Crazy Horse memorial, the town of Sturgis—famous for the Motorcycle Rally attracting 50,000 motorcyclists each year for ten days of wild partying, and Deadwood (famous for its gold mining and heavy-handed gambling past, also the resting place of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane). Of course, all of these sites are interesting and merit a visit of their own, but, when it comes to natural beauty, few can match the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First arriving in the Black Hills, the thought “Black Hills Shmack Hills, what’s the big deal?” might be a fleeting thought. Trust me, just be patient and give it a little time because the 1.2 million acres of Ponderosa Pine forests and mountains will charm and win you over. You need to pay for a park pass upon entering—$10.00 per vehicle—and the pass is good for all South Dakota parks for seven days from the date of purchase.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something that makes the Black Hills unique is that the landscape is distinctly different from the high-altitude flat grasslands surrounding it. In fact, it is dubbed “an island in the plains”. The area is geologically old and stable but pockets of upheaval and volcanic activity have given rise to the hills. While they’re not super high in elevation, the centrally located Black Elk Peak does get up to and impressive 7,242 feet. And there are hiking trails and activities galore.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is a National Scenic Byway completed in 1922 that was considered to be an impossible road to construct due to the series of sharp turns and tunnels that needed to be cut through solid rock while maintaining the integrity of the area. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to slow down to take it all in. Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway remains open from April through October. Due to the narrowness of the road, the byway is closed during winter months.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long but there are several great places to stay nearby. Custer State Park is packed with adventure but it’s also a great place to rest and recuperate. There are nine individual campgrounds for tent camping, RV camping, even camping for horses, so you’ll easily find a match for your camping needs. Several of Custer’s camping options come with electric and water hookups to meet all camping needs.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir